In today’s guest post, Mrs M. explores the world of sensory processing. For many of us, we assume that others experience the world in the same way that we do – lavender is a calming smell, it is pleasant to have soft music playing in the background and the smell of bacon frying makes your mouth water. However, this is not always the case.
Mrs M. takes us through some of the different experiences that children with autism have and, most importantly, how we can support children to make sense of the world around them and thrive in it.
Imagine living in a world that bombarded you from every angle with sensory information that you couldn’t process…
Imagine desperately wanting to open your morning snack, but being unable to as your fingers feel as if you are wearing a thick pair of gloves.
Imagine walking into your classroom every morning only to be hit by the smell of your teacher’s perfume which is so strong that it makes you feel sick just to be near her.
Imagine the labels in your uniform scratching against your skin like a cactus, making your skin sore and irritated.
Imagine the flickering of the light in the classroom flashing so brightly that it was like a strobe light in a disco.
Imagine the smell of lunch wafting down the corridor which is so overpowering that you simply can’t focus on anything else.
Imagine not being able to feel your seat underneath you, almost as if you had been numbed. No matter how hard you wriggled around you just can’t get comfortable.
Imagine snapping your pencil in half every time you tried to write as you can’t judge the amount of pressure you are applying on the paper.
Imagine the sound of the chairs scraping along the floor as if it was fingernails being scratched down a blackboard.
Imagine being surrounded by beautiful bright displays that make your eyes go funny and your head spin around like you’re on a fairground ride.
Imagine having to filter out all the noises, visual distractions and smells from around the classroom every second of every day.
Imagine having to hold all this in.
Having to concentrate.
Trying to focus.
Attempting to follow instructions from your teacher.
I can only imagine how hard this must be. But this is what living with sensory processing can feel like for many children. Because they process information from the world around them differently than we do.
This video produced by the National Autistic Society called ‘Too much information’ is a great way to put yourself in a child’s shoes for just a minute to see how overwhelming the world around them can be when they have sensory processing issues.
You see for us…
When we hear a sound…we can filter it.
When we get hot…we can take our jumper off.
If we feel hungry…we eat some food.
If we find ourselves getting a little bit bored during a meeting…we simply chew on our pen and take a sip of water to help us focus.
But for children with sensory processing disorder the picture far more complicated than that because sensory processing is a complex neurological disorder in which the brain can respond differently to sensory input. They can over-respond to stimuli and under-respond to the world around then.
Therefore, it can be so confusing as we try to unpick children’s behaviour if we suspect they have sensory processing disorder or autism.
Let me explain…
For some children with sensory issues, their brain can under-respond to sensory input, which can lead to a child being passive, distracted, and sometimes difficult to engage. You see some children who under-respond simply don’t know what they’re missing out on. They have no inner drive to explore the world around them and this can prevent core skills from developing.
- Children that fall into this category can need lots of sensory input and rich experiences to stimulate their nervous systems…sensory rooms, outdoor play, swimming, light toys, music therapy, soft play, bubble tubes etc.
However, there is another group of children who also under-respond but seek sensory input just to confuse us…as they are driven to seek feedback. They are the kids who often have no sense of danger and can struggle to calm themselves down. This is because children who seek sensory input have no control as to how much sensory feedback they seek – there is no limit for them. This often leads them to banging and crash into objects which to the onlooker can make us thing they are hyper or aggressive. And some children don’t realise how loud they are which can confuse us into thinking that they are simply rude or deliberately not following our instructions.
- Children that have difficulty in these areas would benefit from physical activities such as bouncing on a trampoline, swings, scooters, therapy balls, massage, sensory play, soft play, weighted blankets/ jackets etc.
For some children, their sensory receptors can also over-respond which can make a child become distressed with light, sound, smells as these can feel painful to them. These children can often want to avoid things that they don’t like and are often in an exhausting cycle of flight or fight mode. This often leads to behavioural outburst that they cannot control in their heightened, arousal state.
- For children like this they need lots of desensitisation activities. Slowly increasing their exposure to things in a safe controlled way. They need strategies outing in place to help them cope with difficult situations and relaxation activities should be an integral part of their day.
And just to confuse us even more, some children who are over-responsive can also seek sensory feedback as a calming strategy, as it can be used to block out the sensory input they are finding difficult – such as chewing and humming/ covering ears to block out a noise. It is a mistake to remove these strategies as they are enabling the child to cope with their environment.
- This is where we need to act as detectives and try new strategies such as chew toy for chewing or earphones to cover their ears to help them block out the noise. See what works, try new things and provide a ‘carry around toolkit of resources’ that can be used to support each individual child.
Some children who are over-responsive to touch can also confuse us a little by seeking out touch. I know this can sound a little odd, but it is usually on their terms and they are firmly in control and feel secure with the activity. They could be children that seek movement, like to touch other people, push and bang in lines or like giving hugs.
- Deep pressure activities work best to help desensitise these children – such as massage therapy, Wilbarger brushing techniques, weighted jackets, outdoor play, pushing and pulling heavy toys etc.
But just to complicate the matter even more, many children can have difficulties across many areas of Sensory Processing and can be over-responsive to some things, and under-responsive to others. Many individuals can seek sensory input that can sometimes be difficult to unpick. And this is particularly true for children with autism, as their ‘normal arousal’ level is so narrow it is even more difficult for them to regulate themselves, which can lead to a very spiky behaviour profile.
So, it’s our job to try and work out what sensory issue our child is trying to avoid, seek or block out, and adapt the environment accordingly whilst providing alternative, appropriate activities.
This can be done in a variety of ways.
- An occupational therapist can do a full assessment for children if you suspect that they have sensory processing disorder.
- There are a variety of books and resources available online so you can do some research yourself.
- Speak to the parents to build up a holistic picture of what is going on as what happens at home and school are intrinsically linked.
- Play detective, watch and observe. What is the function of their behaviour? Are they seeking something, or are they avoiding something?
- Find strategies to put in place, this is called a ‘sensory diet.’ It could be a weighted lap belt for the child that wriggles in their seat, a fiddle toy for the child who can’t concentrate at story time, or some ear defenders for the child that gets upset every time they have to go in the hall.
- Look at your environment through the eyes of someone with autism. Be aware of smells, sights and sounds yourself.
- Create a sensory toolkit packed full of resources that can be carried around form class. Some useful things to have in there could be…
Whiteboard and pen (to write down instructions)
Weighted lap belt (cheaper ‘microwavable wheat bags’ can also do the trick)
Portable table top work station (to provide a distraction-free workspace)
Lego/ playdough/ stress ball…
Obviously, there is no one size fits all when you are supporting children with sensory issues or autism. So, if you have read this today and have any specific questions relating to a child you are working with, just send me an email and I will be happy to help if I can.